Twilight of the Closers: Which Craig Kimbrel did the Cubs get?

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Craig Kimbrel. Without a doubt, he’s been one of the best, if not the best, closer since he was slotted into the permanent closer role for the Atlanta Braves in 2011. He played a central role in the Boston Red Sox’s 2018 run to the post-season, notching 42 saves and 96 strikeouts.

But then came the post season.

As stellar as Kimbrel was during the regular season, he stunk it up during the ALDS and ALCS. He allowed five runs in 5 ⅓ innings. Red Sox manager Alex Cora would go on to suggest that Kimbrel was tipping his pitches. 2003 Cy Young winner Eric Gagne indicated that Kimbrel was telegraphing his curveball, apparently pulling his glove closer to his beard right before throwing his pitch.

While the Red Sox’s ALCS opponents, the Houston Astros did not dispute Kimbrel tipping his pitches, they also claimed that they laid off his curveball because he was simply all over the place.

Anecdotal evidence — namely Boston Red Sox fans I know — suggest Kimbrel’s post-season performance led to enough disenchantment with the closer that eventually manifested itself in the club parting ways with him before the 2019 season. It also probably played a role in defining Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski’s closer-by-commission-with-starters-saving-the-day strategy that hasn’t quite worked out so well for them. Proof of that came in the trade deadline scramble to find adequate relief pitching. It also cost the Red Sox their season as Dombrowski going so far as to admit that. Not having a realistic chance to win the AL East played a big part in the Sox not making a trade.

So bringing things back to Kimbrel. He eventually ended up signing with the Chicago Cubs almost halfway into the season. Which closer did Cubbie fans get, the dominant closer of 2011-2018 or the Boston Bum of the five ALDS/ALCS innings?

Admittedly, it’s a really small sample size to make any definitive conclusions.

Kimbrel has registered 8 saves and 2 blown chances. Notably, he got torched by Christian Yellich and the Milwaukee Brewers on July 27. The closer allowed 3 earned runs on two home runs and a single base on ball. While he has 16 strikeouts to date, he’s also struggled for control, walking 8 batters. All of that adds up to a whopping 6.17 ERA. Of course, he’s got half a season left to bring that ERA down, but we’d be surprised to see him bring it under 4.00.

Pitching wise, Kimbrel has been throwing the same two pitches he’s made a career throwing – fastball and curve. And his percentages are in line with past seasons 64.2% fastballs and 35.8% off-speed. However, he is getting hit much harder so far this season than his entire career. Of batted balls, only 6.5% are hit softly (down from 21.2% last season). Meanwhile, the number of medium and hard hit balls have ballooned to 48.4% and and 45.2%, respectively. Hard hit balls have increased from 27.1% in 2018.

Some of this can be down to a slight decrease in velocity of Kimbrel’s fastball which hit a career low velocity-wise at 96.1 mph.

So which Craig Kimbrel has taken the mound for the Cubs? So far it seems like both of them. However, the quality closer version appears a notch or two down from his elite days while the slightly wild pitcher who is getting hit hard is, well, getting tagged.

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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